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Reuters, December 06, 2002
Indian sex imbalance grows as rich, poor want boys

By Penny MacRae

NEW DELHI, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Workers cleaning drains in a northern Indian town recently discovered two aborted female foetuses, a find that highlights the country's bias against girls.

A few weeks later, a bag turned up in the same town of Alwar in Rajasthan state containing a dozen female foetuses and dead baby girls police believe was dumped by a nursing home.

The finds were stark evidence of the preference for boys over girls among many parents that has skewed the sex ratio in this country of more than a billion and been exploited by money-hungry doctors using ultrasound machines to detect the sex of foetuses.

"It's an unholy alliance of tradition and technology. Ultrasound was not meant for sex selection," said demographer Ashish Bose. "It's a quick way for greedy doctors to make money."

The result of the quest for sons was clear in the 2001 census. From the ages of birth to six, there were 927 girls for 1,000 boys, down from 945 girls a decade earlier.

But that national figure masked big local variations. In northern Punjab state, for instance, there were 793 girls for 1,000 boys, down from 875 girls in 1991. The global ratio is about 1,005 females to 1,000 males.

India has had a long history of female infanticide -- of girls poisoned, suffocated, drowned or left to die.

In the early 19th century, British colonel Alexander Walker recorded his horror at seeing a mother drowning her newborn girl in a trough of milk in the western Gujarat region.

But now abortion of female foetuses or "female foeticide" has become common with the easy availability of ultrasound sex tests.

While such tests, costing as little as 600 rupees ($12.42), are illegal across India, the law is regularly flouted and clinics offering sex tests abound. Portable ultrasound machines mean the tests can be done even in remote areas.

"It's illegal but it's happening all over. It's available at an affordable price," New Delhi social worker Mira Shiva of the Voluntary Health Association told Reuters.

The yearning for a son is deep-rooted social phenomenon.

"A lot of it is economically based. If you have children you're better off having boys because the sons will take care of you in your old age," Bose said.


Daughters, on the other hand, leave home when they wed and a dowry -- that can range from $100 to a new car, jewellery, apartment or more -- can prove crippling for a family.

Social activists say many who seek to find out the sex of their unborn child are poor, rural and illiterate.

The prejudice against girls also stretches into urban centres such as the capital, New Delhi, where the census showed about 850 girls per 1,000 boys in some affluent neighbourhoods.

"Often a woman who gives birth to a daughter gets treated much worse than one who gives birth to a son," Shiva said.

"Some commit suicide they're so worried about how they'll be treated by their husband's family. The family may be educated, have money. This discrimination is across-the-board," she said.

"Girls are seen as a burden and the fact educated women are willing to abort their girls shows their social conditioning."

Shiva says the government's push for two-child families to slow population growth has only worsened the situation.

"With the small family norm, many people want boys so they have abortions and keep trying when it's a girl," she said.

In neighbouring China where there is a similar traditional preference for boys and a controversial one-child rule to keep the population down, there is also a big sex imbalance.

Social workers in India say the trend will mean major social problems ahead and make it harder for young men to wed.

"People won't be able to find girls to marry for their sons. People in some places are already finding it hard. There will be more prostitution, social instability, wife buying," Shiva said.

The government, alarmed by the number of "missing females," has introduced legislation to ban routine ultrasounds on women below the age of 35 but the measure still has to be passed.

In Alwar, to tackle the problem, municipal officials have launched a poster drive with the message: "Killing a female foetus is a sin for which no-one can atone."

Elsewhere, authorities have used other ways. In southern Tamil Nadu state, for instance, authorities run a programme for parents of unwanted girls to leave them in cradles outside hospitals.

At a public meeting in Salem in Tamil Nadu where officials say female infanticide is common, the programme chief was shocked when two mothers gave him their babies and showed no emotion.

"But then I realised this is a positive development," J. Radakrishnan told The Indian Express newspaper. "It shows people are thinking twice about killing their baby girls."

($1-48.30 rupees)


BBC, Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 17:11 GMT
India's gender 'holocaust' warning

Families abort unborn girls after a simple scan

By Vir Singh in Badalia Ala Singh village, Punjab

The lush green fields around the village of Badalia Ala Singh are living proof of Punjab's status as India's granary.

Yet amid this plenty, there is an alarming shortage of girls.

Girls are viewed as a burden in this community of farmers, where in the past some families would ask village midwives to kill a newborn baby if it turned out to be a female.

Now, thanks to ultrasound technology, they do not have to wait so long.

A simple scan can reveal the sex of an unborn baby, and if is a girl, the family is likely to force the mother to undergo an abortion.

Test ban

"We are heading towards the greatest holocaust of unborn girls in human history," said Sabu George, a campaigner for the rights of girls.

Campaigners say that attitudes to girls will not change overnight.

Sex determination tests were banned in 1994, but they continue to be performed and they are blamed for a dramatic drop in the number of girls.

According to India's 2001 census, nationally there are 927 girls for every 1000 boys up to the age of six, down from 945 in 1991.

Affluent states in the north and west, where ultrasound clinics first sprang up, have the lowest figures.

Punjab is at the very bottom, with just 793 girls for every 1000 boys.

"As the shortage becomes more and more, you will find much, much greater violence against surviving women", said Mr George.

Social workers have found that more rapes and harrassment occur in communities where boys greatly outnumber girls.

Also, young men are finding it increasingly difficult to find brides.

Official apathy

Sex determination tests have intensified discrimination against girls, especially in states like Punjab with greater spending power.

But government officials have largely disregarded the ban.

Not a single person has been convicted in more than seven years despite ample evidence of a flourishing illegal trade.

Now, Mr George and other campaigners have successfully petitioned India's Supreme Court to get state governments to crack down on lawbreakers.

Suppliers of ultrasound machines are required to submit a list of buyers to a specially constituted authority.

State governments must register all machines and also report to the monitoring body.

Offenders 'beware'

Punjab's director of health services for family welfare says the court action has given his department the necessary impetus to finally enforce the law against sex determination tests.

"Now the people who are undergoing this test or are conducting this test, they will be in real trouble," said Dr D P S Sandhu.

"We are educating the people, telling them that girls are looking after the old people better than the boys," he added.

"Now people are realising it and I think there will be a change in the attitude. We have just started this campaign vigorously┐so the result will come up after a year. You will see."

A midwife in Badalia Ala Singh village, Satwant Kaur, said the government should make prosecuting lawbreakers its top priority.

"Instead of spending money on seminars and public meetings, the government should post a reward of Rs 5,000 for anyone who helps to catch offenders. This is the only way to stop this illegal practice," she said.

Greedy doctors

S K Chaudhry, who heads a girls school in the nearby town of Sarhand, agrees.

"People in this rural area don't think about the long term, about the impact on society," she said.

"But doctors are educated. They know this is a bad thing. So we have to implement the law by raiding clinics."

It may take several months, even years, to judge the effectiveness of official measures against testing.

Campaigners like Mr George accept that laws alone cannot change long held beliefs overnight.

But he said the enforcement measures ordered by India's highest court are needed to end the "open promotion" of sex determination tests by greedy doctors.

By implementing the ban, "the government is sending a certain message to the social, moral and legal undesirability of foeticide."

The hope is that if the government leads the way, communities like this one in Punjab will follow.


BBC, Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
India's unwanted girls

Poverty and social pressure are said to be responsible for the problem

By Jyotsna Singh in Delhi

The methods adopted to kill unwanted children in India are often cold-blooded and cruel.

The ritual is performed by a family member or a professional killer, by swaddling a new-born in a wet cloth or simply giving her a spoonful of paddy grain with milk.

It simply cuts her tender throat, suffocating her to death.

At times, the mother is forced to hire a sweeper for a small sum of 25 rupees (50 cents) to dispose of the child by simply poisoning the baby with the latex of the calitropis plant, or holding her so close to a table that she cannot breath.

The problem spreads across the country.

Health officials in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have identified three districts - Dharmapuri, Salem and Madurai - as problem areas.

In Dharmapuri alone, close to 1,300 children are killed every year, while Salem comes second with over 1,000 such killings.

Availability of sex determination tests like amniocentesis and ultrasound seem to have increased the problem further.

Cruel death

Last week the body of a new-born girl child was exhumed from a village in Paparapatti in the Dharmapuri district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Authorities say they arrested the father of the child along with another man, following complaints from the local villagers that the two had killed the unwanted child.

An investigation into the case is continuing.

Dharmapuri tops the list of areas with the highest number of cases of female infanticide and cases like these are not rare.

Reports say that the practice is widely prevalent in the interiors of Tamil Nadu and is adversely affecting the sex ratio.

Government officials put the number of cases of female infanticide in Tamil Nadu at 3,000 each year.

But they say there is very little evidence to allow direct administrative action.

Getting data for female infanticide is even harder.

Medical termination of pregnancy is legal in India and it is nearly impossible to ascertain whether the abortion followed an ultrasound test to detect the sex of the foetus.

Decline of women

Activists working in the area say the practice of female infanticide is particularly rampant among the Kallar community.

They say that the community valued its female population until the early years of the 20th century.

However, after the green revolution brought agricultural prosperity, men assumed greater role in the economic process and women were made subservient.

Since the 1970's the female population began to decline.

Killing of female foetuses has only added to the problem though selective abortion is a crime under the Indian law.

As part of its preventive measures the government has tried to compulsorily register all pregnancies and follow them up.

But that is a daunting task for a village health nurse, who sometimes has to cover a population of 5,000.

Activists and non-governmental organisations say a strong campaign against the issue may be the only immediate answer.


BBC, Thursday, 4 May, 2000, 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK
Plea to save girl babies

Cultural traditions favouring boys over girls die hard

By Helen Sewell of the BBC science unit

Doctors in India are calling for international help to prevent two million abortions they say are carried out each year because the unborn babies are female.

Terminating a pregnancy purely because of the sex of a child is illegal in India.

But many mothers want boys not girls, and the Indian Medical Association says the law is almost impossible to uphold.

In some sections of Indian society, having daughters is less acceptable than having sons.

Dr V Parameshvara, a former president of the Indian Medical Association, says intrinsically women have a lower status in India than men.

He says girls can bring economic and social burdens to a family, and rather than bring
children into the world to be ill-treated by a patriarchal society, expectant mothers prefer to abort their female babies.

The proportion of females to males in India has been going down since the beginning of the 20th century, with up to 50m fewer women in the population than expected.

In recent years, the ratio has dropped dramatically.

Dr Parameshvara says there has been a long-standing tradition in some circles of killing girl babies just after birth.

But because technology now allows mothers to know the sex of their child before it is born, terminations have become widespread.

Dr Parameshvara claims that a law introduced specifically to prevent abortions because of the sex of the unborn child is being ignored throughout the country.

The Indian Medical Association is urging international colleagues at the World Medical Association to support a campaign against female feticide and female infanticide to rid India of what it calls "this social evil".


Indian Women Index